2019/20 – Chapter Two. August 2019.

A month is a long time in football. When I last updated these pages, my main thought for the league season ahead was worry. A month on that feeling has been replaced with cautious optimism after a string of signings and decent performance in the opening four matches, which has admittedly only yielded three points during a tough start to the Premiership campaign.

Following the league cup debacle, where Saints failed to progress from a group as easy as winding up Rangers fans on social media, the club finally delivered what we have needed since May, and that was a host of new signings.

First up, was the unexpected arrival of Turkish left winger Ilias Durmus from Austrian side Wacker Innsbruck, and he was quickly followed by Sam Foley on a free transfer from Northampton Town, then powerful forward Jonathan Obika of Oxford United.  The next signing was Sean McLoughlin on loan from Hull City, who had very recently purchased the centre half from Cork City for around half a million pounds.

Suddenly, within the space of only a few days the squad looked much stronger and the trip to Edinburgh to face Hibernian not so daunting after all. On a glorious afternoon around a thousand Saints fans made the trip east to see how the team shaped up with the new signings, including Captain Stephen McGinn who was in amongst the away support and it has to be said it was impressive on the park from Goodwin’s men. 

With no left back yet on our books, Paul McGinn deputised in this position with Cammy MacPherson at right back, while McLoughlin took his place at left centre back beside the returning Gary MacKenzie. Sam Foley formed a central midfield partnership with Ryan Flynn, and Durmus slotted in on the left with stand in captain Kyle Magennis on the right and Danny Mullen up top himself supported by Tony Andreu.

Saints played a containing game with the intention of hitting Hibernian on the break, and apart from actually scoring it worked splendidly well. Other than a wee Stevie Mallan strike from 30 yards that went narrowly over, Hibs didn’t real threat in the first half at all thanks to a wonderfully marshalled defence led by the imperious Gary MacKenzie, with McLoughlin looking rock solid beside him.

In midfield, the balance of the disciplined Foley along with the all action Flynn dovetailed perfectly, and the best chances of the half fell to Saints as they gave the home side a tough time on the break. Ilias Durmus was having a particularly impressive first half, and he almost opening the scoring with a rasping left foot shot which Marciano turned over the crossbar. Just before half time a surging off the ball run by Paul McGinn presented Saints with a great chance to open the scoring, but the defender couldn’t divert it past the onrushing Marciano after a lovely pass from Andreu, and frustratingly Saints couldn’t make their fine play count.

The second half was similar to the first, but the home side did create chances with the post being struck on a couple of occasions and a goal disallowed, however Saints were still dangerous on the break with Andreu bringing out another stunning save from Marciano, who as always it seems recently against Saints was anything but Rocky after Stelios Demetriou made a clown on him at his near post twice in one match back in 2017.

As the match moved into the last ten minutes, a scrambled clearance from Whittaker prevented Obika opening the scoring and from the resulting corner McLoughlin headed narrowly wide with Marciano finally beaten. It was to prove a crucial moment in the match as within a minute Scott Allan had opened the scoring for the home side with six minutes remaining much to the frustration of the Saints players and supporters.

In injury time Cammy MacPherson swung in a delicious free kick which the unlikely figure of Ryan Flynn met but his header flashed inches wide, and the last chance was gone for Saints. We left Easter Road defeated, but far from despondent and many Hibernian fans commented on how lucky they had been to win the match on the walk back to the car, encouraging signs indeed.

Before the next match a week later against Aberdeen, something truly incredible happened when Calum Waters signed from Kilmarnock on a season long loan. The transfer itself is hardly sensational, but the defender is a natural left back and finally we had a team to put on the park where all eleven players could play in their natural positions. What these signings meant of course however was that probably all Saints fans were happy with the squad at this stage, but for many it should have happened weeks before this point which would have probably meant the club remained in the League Cup.

The lack of signings prior to and during the league cup group stage was a source of great frustration for a section of the support on social media, and after a director posted a picture of his cars on twitter, that was enough for one fan who suggested the board member should show a bit more tact during a period we couldn’t score against East Kilbride. I paraphrase of course.

This ‘twitter spat’ continued for a few days and started getting quite heated as the alleged past business accomplishments of another supporter and then the director was raised , until someone jokingly tweeted that the pair should engage in a few rounds of “bare bum boxing” to sort it out. Now, most of us knew this was a joke; however the director incredibly accepted the challenge and agreed to do this in public for charity.

Unsurprisingly, within 12 hours the director had deleted his twitter account, but not before suggesting only “decent” supporters backed him which had most of us covering our eyes in embarrassment. The month of July is becoming worse by the year for Saints, I fully expect next year to see Gordon Scott in Gauze Street boxing a kangaroo for a local foodbank.

Before a ball was kicked against Aberdeen however in the next match, the club had another transfer up their sleeve when due to the persistence of Tony Fitzpatrick Saints signed Kyle McAllister back from Derby County for an undisclosed fee on a three year contract. It was a sensational piece of business by the club in all honesty, and the squad was now beginning to make the panic of the previous month look completely premature.

Back to the football, and with the Dons playing in Europe on the Thursday, the match was moved to Sunday at 3pm and there was a quiet confidence that Saints could win the match beforehand, a sentiment shared by me I should add.

This new found belief was justified, and Saints were by far the better team as they dominated the opening stages of the match, giving a creaking Aberdeen side all sorts of problems. With Waters straight in at left back, Paul McGinn moved over to his natural position on the right and after only twelve minutes  he played a lovely cushioned pass into the path of Kyle Magennis who drove straight at the Dons defence before cutting the ball back to Durmus and the Turk hammered a left shot into the corner of the net to score his first goal for the club.

It was exactly what Saints deserved, and as they continued to dominate it looked inevitable the lead would be doubled, however the Dons got into the dressing room at half time still in the match and facing a raging Derek McInnes who was back in his hometown where he was yet to lose as manager.

Saints were supremely well drilled however, and in truth Hladky had little to do as the home side comfortably seen the match out despite a loud shout for a penalty when the ball hit Flynn’s arm. To be honest, it looked a spot kick however I’m sure the Czech wall would have easily dealt with such as threat, not that Willie Miller on Sportsound cared and he whinged for an eternity about the decision as we would all expect.

Clockwise from top left. (1) Saints on the counter attack at Easter Rd (2) Corner to Saints against Hibs (3) & (4) Saints defend a throw in v Aberdeen (5) Paul McGinn takes a throw in v Rangers (6) Action from the Moon v Livingston

Saints had a week off the following Saturday due to our league cup elimination, and a few days before the Rangers match which was also moved to the Sunday for TV purposes, Jim Goodwin made another signing when he bought Jamaican forward Junior Morias from Northampton Town for an undisclosed fee, much to the displeasure of the English minnows support who rated the striker very highly.

On the same day, it was reported that Rangers would have a section of their stadium shut for their next European match due to “racist” and “sectarian” singing in a previous UEFA cup match, which surprised absolutely nobody alive who is aware of these songs apart from Rangers supporters who believe they are apparently being picked on.

As funny as this reaction is to all of us, there is a reason for this belief. For generations Rangers fans have been allowed to basically do and sing what they want in Scotland, with practically no repercussions from the Police or football authorities. The few people in the media willing to raise the matter have been hounded by the “angry mob”, to the extent the liquidation and demise of their previous club is barely mentioned, even more so after Jim Spence had to take an enforced “break” from Radio Scotland duties for daring to speak of it.

They are used to acting with impunity, so the moment Rangers are sanctioned for what is frankly disgusting songs, it sparks a disproportionate outrage and reaction about it from their support as they are not used to being treated like everyone else.

To prove this theory as I made my way to the stadium on the Sunday morning of the match, hundreds of Rangers fans were gathered in small pockets of different streets drinking whatever their choice of alcohol was as the Police passed with nothing said or done. If this was me or you, we would rightfully be arrested. Clearly, there are different rules for them and everyone else.

I then entered the stadium and sat in my decanted seat from the Family Stand, a seat I had no chance to pick as it is allocated in a section of the ground where season tickets sales are low in the main stand. It was in section M2, as close to the Rangers support as possible, where the sanctuary and safety of the family stand for my son was as far away as Alan Stubbs being appointed director of football at Barcelona.

Once the match started Saints were dogged, limiting Rangers space and working hard to prevent any openings for the Glasgow side, who seriously struggled to make any impact on the supremely well organised defensive shape of the home side. The only chance Rangers really had from open play early on was when the lightweight Jermaine Defoe managed to stay on his feet for once but poked a shot wide of Hladky’s left hand post. This was the sum of their threat from open play in 90 minutes.

Saints wasted two great first half openings when Durmus blazed over, and then Andreu did exactly the same when he should have passed to the clean through Obika, but the turning point of the match came just before half time when the big Saints front man nipped in front Helander in the penalty box causing the Rangers defender to clip his own heels and then bring Obika down as he was falling.

At the match it looked a clear penalty, but referee Kevin Clancy awarded a free kick to Rangers for a foul on the defender. We can only be grateful Andrew Dallas wasn’t in charge as he would have undoubtedly given the Ibrox side a spot kick.

There was a fairly lively debate over whether it was a penalty or not, but the second half continued in a similar manner, and with Rangers frankly looking lost their support began to sound uneasy, but comfortable enough to sing about a sectarian Irish Paramilitary Group, as we’ve come to expect in Scotland where they are untouchable. Before Saints could capitalise though on these groans, Barisic curled in a 25 yard free kick to win the match for the away side and the usual zombie hordes invaded the park in celebration.

Saints brought on Junior Morias for Obika as the match drew towards a close, and his strength gave Rangers problems, however in injury time when McAllister cut the ball back to the forward with an open goal his lack of match sharpness showed when he failed to control the ball and the best chance of the match for either team was gone.

Defeated but far from despondent, Saints moved on to the next match away to Livingston and in many ways it felt like the actual start to the season given the extremely hard opening to the campaign for Saints against three of the previous seasons top six, a new manager and a host of signings on the eve of the season. Three points was a good return from these games when all these circumstances were considered, and the fact we managed only six points from the  top six the whole of last campaign, it is encouraging to start with a win early on this time around.  

Livingston of course had a poor end to last season, and Saints picked up six points in the two matches played between the clubs in 2019, but despite a couple of their criminal element leaving the club for pastures new, they had made a good start to this season and at home are always a difficult opponent, regardless of the appalling pitch they play on.

With their manager Gary Holt ill, assistant manager Robert Martindale took charge of the home side, a man who is the alleged real brains and brawn behind their incredible rise from tin pot plastic club who employ ex-cons to………well the same but in a higher league. Martindale of course spent six years in Barlinnie previously for punting cooncil, and he watched on as his side took the lead when fellow convict Alan Lithgow rose unchallenged at a corner to nod the home side ahead after half an hour. It was just like the good old days at exercise hour back in the clink, and the goal scorer still looked decidedly uneasy when Nicky Devlin jumped on his back during the celebration, a flashback to old times perhaps.

Saints were very poor in the first half, and while it’s easy to blame the pitch of course and it doesn’t help, the fault must lie squarely with the players in the first forty five minutes who were so slow in their build up play Josh Heaton could have joined in. This is reinforced when the vastly improved second half showing is considered.

The lead up to the opening goal however included a high foot challenge by Steven Lawless, who was surely born to play for Livingston given his surname, which was missed by 1980’s lower league English player, Colin Steven, who is apparently a referee in the same way Alan Stubbs is a football manager.

To say Mr Steven had a poor match is as big an understatement as suggesting Pat Bonner has a limited knowledge of Scottish football. He was simply atrocious and appeared to have different rules for both teams as he allowed Livingston players to grab, kick, time waste and feign injury throughout the match whilst Saints were pulled up for every innocuous challenge.

The referee was not in charge of Saints marking however, and despite being a foul to Saints in the lead up to the corner, the fact nobody tracked Lithgow’s run apart from his police ankle tag is frankly criminal, pun intended.

Saints improved dramatically in the second half as I suggested above, and were by far the better side however they couldn’t get a break to force home an equaliser and numerous goalmouth scrambles fell to a Livingston player as the home goal experienced a charmed life.

The sucker punch however never felt far away, and after what looked like a handball by Chris Erskine who increasingly looks like a condom filled with water, the tall winger coasted by McLoughlin and cut the ball back for Lyndon Dykes who continued the trend of useless players scoring against us by prodding it home to double their lead.

It was infuriating to be honest, and after three outstanding matches the young Irish centre half was having a tough day, although to be fair nothing can really prepare a footballer for a match against Livingston and he must have wondered what on earth was going on in truth.

The referee continued to have a deplorable match, and as Saints dominated again, Livingston players fell over with more regularity than a visit from the parole officer to Almondavle, and it is frankly incredible the referees are not aware of this play breaking tactic which has been used by years by different managers at the Spaghettihad.

Saints were given a lifeline when Kyle Magennis, who had been playing left wing as Durmus was benched following a poor first half against Rangers, got Saints back into the match with a stunning 25 yard dipping shot and surely the equaliser would now come we all thought, but Livingston doubled their timewasting efforts and along with the referee broke momentum at every opportunity.

In one incredible passage of play, Paul McGinn attempted to lob the ball over Livingston left back Ibrahima Savane’s head, and it struck the Livi player before going out for a throw in around the eighteen yard box right in front of the linesman who obviously signalled for a Saints throw in.  Seconds later, the Livingston player collapsed in a heap holding his face, and astonishingly a free kick was awarded to the home side as Savane jumped to his feet. I have never seen such a poor piece of refereeing and I doubt I ever will again.

A few minutes later, Dykes took out Hladky 30 yards from goal with both feet, and the referee weirdly waved play on. We should all have gone home at that stage as it was never going to be our day, and despite continued Saints pressure, the match finished 2-1 to the home side in a game we should never have lost.

It was very frustrating, but a year ago Livingston easily won 2-0 at Paisley in Alan Stubbs last home match in charge and in truth this performance was streets ahead of that, so I remain optimistic things will get better this season, including even the standard of referee.

In conclusion however, it had been an encouraging month. A number of the new signings have impressed, in particular Sam Foley who has added steel and discipline to the midfield, however his all round game is notable also. Although Sean McLoughlin struggled at Almondvale, he was outstanding in the previous three matches and as Livingston isn’t a normal indicator of what football is like unless the Moon somehow hosts a league, I will put that down to circumstances.

Ilkay Durmus had a fine debut and followed that up with a great first half against Aberdeen, so it will be interesting to see how he gets on once he is match fit along with Obika and Morais who also look short of sharpness currently. In my opinion they all can only get better.

Of the other signings, Djorkaeff hasn’t played much since the league cup, but Andreu has improved significantly since these matches and looks as though he may well be a useful signing. Calum Waters has looked solid enough, and as he wasn’t getting much game time at Kilmarnock, he will also improve as the season continues.

Despite this, it is still too early to predict if Saints are in for another relegation fight or have enough to enjoy a rare stress free end to a season. September may tell us a bit more…………

Sam Foley 8.3
Gary MacKenzie 8.0
Paul McGinn 7.8
Kyle Magennis 7.8
Vaclecv Hladky 7.5
Ryan Flynn 7.5
Tony Andreu 7.5
Sean McLoughlin 7.5

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